Lost children: Scrutinizing Israeli ‘boarding schools’

Large-scale institutions for children remain popular in Israel, despite long ago falling out of favor in the developed world

Illustrative (photo credit: TNS)
(photo credit: TNS)
David Libran just came back from a trip to a villa on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
He wasn’t on vacation, rather he was visiting the group home where he spent two years of his life. He was 16 when he first walked through the gates; three years after he lost his mother to cancer, two since dropping out of religious school and a year removed from wandering the streets, with no direction and without any prospects for the future.
Resolving to get his life together, he joined an off-campus branch of Zion Orphanage, Israel’s longest-running home for Jewish boys without families. Libran was there voluntarily, but most of his peers – a dozen boys ranging from ages 14 to 18 – were placed there after being removed from their homes by the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry.
According to data compiled by the Israel National Council for the Child (NCC), an organization that promotes child rights, the government placed 10,597 youngsters into what it refers to as “boarding schools” in 2016, a full 70% of all children removed from their homes by the state or courts and placed in facilities.
Most of the children in question are raised in dysfunctional environments, in which they suffer from poverty and general neglect. Only 5% of children in boarding schools are orphans. The official policy of the ministry is for children to be placed in these institutions for a maximum of four years, while the government works to rehabilitate their families, in a bid to provide them with the necessary tools to care for their offspring.
While a child’s average stay in a facility is two years, many remain until they age out of the system at 18.
“Most remain until age 18,” Gershon Unger, Director of Development at the Zion Orphanage, told The Media Line, referring to those residing at the organization’s main campus, located in the center of an ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood.
“A boy who enters Zion Orphanage at age 10 will remain for eight years.”
Zion is one of 109 “boarding schools” for youth in Israel, where these residential facilities remain a mainstay of the national culture. Most children do not get an opportunity like Libran and his peers to attend a small facility.
The problem with boarding schools
Zion, like many of these institutions, boasts an impressive campus, offering programs and activities such as martial arts, gardening, art, sport and virtually anything else requested. They also provide one-on-one therapy sessions, ranging from traditional forms to art and music therapy. Accordingly, the boys are well cared for while the government monitors their development.
For his part, Unger greets every child by name, seemingly aware of what each one is up to.
But to activists like Emmanuelle Werner of Friends International, a non-governmental organization that works with marginalized children mainly in developing countries, the conversation should not be about whether a specific facility is “good or bad,” but rather about the merits of the system as a whole.
In fact, “children need families, not orphanages” is the mantra of a growing global movement to “de-institutionalize” youth.
Since foster care became government-funded in the United States in the 1960s, it has become the most common solution in that country, although some children waiting for adoption or reunification with their families are placed in boarding schools, residential treatment centers or group homes. European countries also have invested heavily into re-integrating children into family-like environments, instead of large institutions.
The reason for the shift away from residential facilities is straightforward, according to Werner. “There is a strong consensus among child experts that we need to question the institutional model,” citing 60 years of research showing that children do not develop as well in these conditions and then have a challenging time reintegrating into society. The research suggests that young adults who grow up in institutions have a higher chance of ending up on the streets, turning to prostitution and committing suicide.
“Children can’t receive individualized attention [in boarding schools.] They need to actually get love and be loved properly and they need to form secure attachments, especially when they’re very young,” Werner stressed to The Media Line.
Notably, the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry could not cite any studies into the prospects for young people after they leave Israeli boarding schools or group homes. In addition to the role a family environment plays in aiding child development, it also provides young adults with a direct support network once they leave the system.
Libran, for example, is 22 years old now, a year-and-half removed from a three-year stint as an IDF medic with the Kfir combat unit. Accordingly, he has had time to reflect on his voluntary two-year stay at the institution.
“Going back now, I see that the boys needed the feeling that this was their home. A lot of them didn’t have anywhere else to go. They’re 22, 23 years old and going back to visit,” said Libran. “I understand now that what the guys really need is a family.”
The facility that Libran was in is called a mishpahton, a group home inhabited by a married couple, generally with young children. Independent of the government, some organizations have been promoting this model for at least a decade, recognizing the benefit to children of having parental figures, a family-like environment and specific support mechanisms.
Data from 2012 reveals that around 500 18-year-olds left boarding schools without any external family or support, related Yoa Sorek, a researcher with the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute, which has helped raise awareness of this issue and is working with the ministry to implement change.
Unger says that in his view, “insufficient follow-up” is one of the biggest issues with Zion Orphanage. They do not provide outreach to their alumni and often only make contact to ask for financial assistance.
A shift in Israeli mentality
“It’s not so simple to say boarding schools should be banished,” said Carmit Polak-Cohen, the legal adviser for NCC.
Sorek explained that boarding schools have become part of the collective Israeli mentality. “All of the boarding schools here go back to when we built the country as part of the socialization of adolescent immigrants when they came to Israel,” she explained. “It’s not that way anymore, but the infrastructure has stayed and, more importantly, the tradition has remained.”
In Judaism, she elaborated, it is considered prestigious to leave home and attend a yeshiva, which is why boarding schools are only considered a last-resort option. Sorek added that Israel’s traditional views on family make it more difficult to recommend sending a child to a foster home than it is in other developed countries.
“If you refer families to foster care, it’s like you are suggesting replacing the biological family with another family,” she noted to The Media Line.
All these factors help explain why, until a few years ago, 90% of children in out-of-home placements resided in boarding schools. But over the past few years there has been a push to alter the system, with up to 40% of youth now placed in family-oriented facilities. Nevertheless, there continues to be backlash from some families who often have a say where their children go.
“The problem is not that there are not enough foster families,” said Sorek, “it’s more because of the ideological mind-set of Israelis.”
The 2016 Foster Care Law, lobbied for by NCC and implemented with the help of the Myers-JDC-Brookdale research team, has prompted a shift towards recognizing the importance of paying greater attention to children in the welfare system. As a result, there is greater emphasis being placed on rehabilitating families, so that children in boarding schools have a functional home to return to. “As part of a reform announced two years ago, the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry allocates NIS 65 million a year to expand the basket of services and treatment of the family unit… to help him and his family recover,” Nir Shaked, a ministry spokesperson, told The Media Line.
Next steps for Israel
Since the passage of the Foster Care Law, the government has worked to create the position of ombudsman to oversee children in foster care and boarding schools, the idea being that a child or parent will have a specific outlet if they feel something should be improved in the system. Polak-Cohen of the NCC told The Media Line that authorities have consulted children in order to determine what role the ombudsman should play.
“We need to see the children, we need to hear the children and allow them to speak freely so we can understand their problems and give them a good response; all in an effort to make the system more attentive to the needs of the kids in the institutions,” said Polak-Cohen.
Additionally, the ministry highlighted a program being planned by the staff of boarding schools for youth aged 18 to 25 to help them establish and develop life beyond the welfare system.
“There’s a long way to go,” concluded Polak-Cohen. “There’s still a lot to do for the children.”
The writer recently completed The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program.